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Filmmaker Sydney Pollack, Doing What He Hates Best

By Desson Thomson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 22, 2005; Page C01


Whether his movies break box-office records or flop worse than "Ishtar," Sydney Pollack has the same feelings about making them: fear and misery.

For the 70-year-old film producer, director and sometime actor, the process of directing more than 200 film crew members and other technicians, plus persuading his Winnebago-dwelling superstars to create acting magic in front of the camera, is too exhausting and worrisome to actually enjoy at the time. It's the aftermath that's so sublime. If movies were operas, Pollack wouldn't be happy until the fat lady sang, doffed her Viking helmet and sailed home for the evening.

Sean Penn, left, and Nicole Kidman confer with director Sydney Pollack on the set of "The Interpreter," a thriller of international intrigue set at the United Nations. Pollack persuaded the world body to grant him access for filming, the first time the U.N. has agreed to do so. (Phil Bray -- Universial Studios Via Reuters)

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"I love having made a movie," he says, his eyes a fatigued, shimmery green behind what look like trifocal lenses.

Major Hollywood movies such as Pollack's "The Interpreter," which opens today, "cost a couple of hundred thousand dollars a day," says Pollack. "So every 15-minute period represents thousands and thousands of dollars. You're always aware of that."

On the set, he's always aware, he says, of "a clock ticking. Tick tick tick tick tick."

To emphasize that sense of tension, or perhaps to exorcise a few painful memories, Pollack tick-ticks again -- 12 times.

He pops little white vitamin tablets with his soda every few minutes to maintain his strength. The tiredness, he says, comes from a brutal globe-trotting schedule to promote "The Interpreter," which has opened in select markets around the world, including England, Australia and Spain. He pulls out two printouts from the trade papers, revealing that the movie has already enjoyed a weekend "cume" (cumulative box office take) of about $10 million in England, Spain, Greece, Taiwan and Australia.

"It's off to a monster start," he says. But he confesses he has no idea what to expect from domestic audiences about "The Interpreter," which stars Nicole Kidman as Silvia Broome, an interpreter for the United Nations. Her command of the (fictional) African dialect Ku comes in handy when she overhears a muttered threat directed toward an African political leader. If those ominous words are to be believed, the president of the (also fictional) country of Matobo, who's scheduled to address the world body, could be in grave danger.

But when Silvia informs her superiors, she has to contend with U.S. Secret Service agent Tobin Keller (Sean Penn), who believes there's something suspicious about this interpreter. It's the beginning of a mystery-thriller with flavorings of "North by Northwest" and "The Manchurian Candidate," as Silvia and Tobin try to find out who is behind this possible plot and circle each other like romantic tigers.

For Pollack, "The Interpreter" is another thriller under his multi-genre belt. Over a career that has spanned 40 years, he seems to have a knack for switching genres, including thrillers, westerns, epics, actioners and comedies.

It's not the genres that count, Pollack says, so much as "trying to find those personal stories within convention. Even with 'Three Days of the Condor,' I wanted to do a thriller. But I was still concentrating on the Faye Dunaway-Robert Redford relationship in that film. . . . Each time I make a movie it's a little bit like taking another course in something, because there's an argument between these people that I don't necessarily have an answer to. Or if I do, I try to make both sides equal and I try to be the woman and the man. Try to be both. Who's right here?"

Pollack has had his share of misfires, including "Sabrina," "Random Hearts" and "Havana," but he seems to have been on target more often than not, with films such as "The Firm," "Out of Africa," "Tootsie," "Absence of Malice," "The Way We Were" and "Jeremiah Johnson."

These are satisfying movies for general audiences, the kind of star-driven dramas that often feature well at the Oscars. Pollack won the Best Director and Best Picture awards for "Out of Africa," which he also produced; and he was nominated in the same two categories for "Tootsie," and as a director for the 1969 movie "They Shoot Horses, Don't They?"

His direction has led to Oscar nominations for 12 actors, including Gig Young (who won for "They Shoot Horses"), Jane Fonda, Susannah York, Barbra Streisand, Paul Newman, Melinda Dillon, Jessica Lange (a winner for "Tootsie"), Dustin Hoffman, Teri Garr, Meryl Streep, Klaus Maria Brandauer and Holly Hunter.

You enjoy these films but you don't walk away knowing you've seen a Sydney Pollack film. You don't think about the man behind the curtain. That's because Pollack's in the mold of director Howard Hawks, a journeyman, a studio reliable who jumped effortlessly between jobs like a stuntman switching horses in mid-ride.

"I think that's one of my problems," says Pollack. "I don't have a style. I've never thought of myself as a stylist like the visual stylists I admire enormously -- Adrian Lyne, Ridley Scott, Alan Parker -- in which every shot has a great idea in them. A lot of the European guys, too. Bertolucci. Those guys. I sort of backed into filmmaking. I wasn't a film nut. I didn't go to film school. I'm not really film literate, to be honest with you."

In this age of anxious specialty, especially in Hollywood, a generalist seems almost quaint. In many ways, Pollack's the last of a dying breed, someone who came up through the ranks.

After growing up in Indiana, he started his career in New York as an actor in the late 1950s, studying under esteemed acting coach Sanford Meisner. He then graduated to directing television dramas in the early 1960s. Then, after some undistinguished films, he broke into the big time with "They Shoot Horses, Don't They?" He scored repeatedly throughout the 1970s with "Jeremiah Johnson," "The Way We Were" and "Three Days of the Condor." And he hit high notes again in the 1980s with "Tootsie" and "Out of Africa." The 1990s, which brought "Havana," "Sabrina" and "Random Hearts," weren't his decade, although 1993's "The Firm" was a hit.

There have been hits, yes. But they have also been few and far between. The reason, Pollack says, is that directing "scares the [expletive] out of me and I get real anxious every time I'm doing it. And sometimes I resist and resist and resist. I was taking too long. I would work on a lot of things and then I would abandon them."

His solution was to form Mirage Productions in the mid-1980s, a production company that generates the kind of films he'd like to see made but which he doesn't have to make himself. Mirage has put out films such as "Sense and Sensibility," "Searching for Bobby Fischer," "Flesh and Bone," "Sliding Doors" and the more recent "Cold Mountain."

"I do like the idea that I can be creative as a producer," says Pollack. "It's not my baby, the way it is as a director. I'm not going to get the credit for it. Nor am I going to get the blame. That's a relief. I can have a day-to-day sense of creativity without taking the load."

Pollack is a "notorious choker," Tim Bevan, producer of "The Interpreter," told the London Times this month. "He has been attached to more projects and bailed on them than people have had hot dinners, so there was a certain amount of cynicism" when Pollack expressed interest in directing Bevan's film. But Pollack, Bevan continued, spoke so eloquently about his idea for making the movie, he got the job.

When Pollack does take on a project, it seems, he doesn't hold back. Not happy with elements of Charles Randolph's original script, he rewrote much of the story with screenwriters Scott Frank, Steven Zaillian and an uncredited David Rayfiel. And when the United Nations initially rejected his request to film in the U.N. buildings, Pollack successfully appealed his case to Secretary General Kofi Annan. It was the first film production ever to be granted such access. (Even director Alfred Hitchcock, who set some of "North by Northwest" in the United Nations, had to build his own set.)

Because Kidman's character, Silvia, needed to demonstrate her ability to speak Ku, Pollack realized he'd have to invent vocabulary for a scene in which Silvia is seen and heard translating. So with the help of a language institute in England that specializes in southern African languages, he concocted words, expressions and even gestures of greeting for this imaginary nation. With Kidman, he devised a new accent, too, a way of speaking English that would smack of the region but not adhere specifically to South Africa or Zimbabwe.

"I was never 100 percent sure of what we had," says Pollack, whose writers were rewriting throughout the shoot. "But I was thrilled with Nicole and Sean. It's a very weird combination. I was interested in that right away. I love the intensity of his quietness."

Whether this one's a hit or not, Pollack declares: "You never know."

But he'll be back for more, whatever the result. Pollack's well aware that he's an older director in an ever-changing world. In the 1960s and 1970s, when he came of artistic age, movies could be made for a few million dollars. And the studios weren't run as they are now, by multinational corporations interested only in creating repeat business from young moviegoers. Not only that, the style of filmmaking has evolved to faster, meaner and more frenetic. Surely that ups the anxiety index? If so, why keep doing this?

"Because I love it when it works," says Pollack. "I love having a body of work now. Some good. Some bad. But it's the closest I can come to having a legacy. Sometimes I go back and watch the work and I'm embarrassed by it. But sometimes I think, this is not a bad movie. Pretty good."

That's when the ticking stops.

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